What is The Way of the Kami?

Motoori_Norinaga_self_portrait

from World Religions The great faiths explored & explained, by John Bowker

Religion in Japan is a rich tapestry of interwoven traditions and religions, which has been developing for over 2,000 years. Some of the strands are indigenous; others have been introduced during the course of history. In general, Japanese people do not choose between the different religions, but, like the Chinese participate in several for different occasions and purposes. Common to all is an emphasis on the sacredness found in nature, respect for ancestors in strong family associations, local cults and festivals, and the unity of religion and the nation of Japan.

The main sources of Japanese religion are indigenous folk beliefs and practices, organized Shinto, Confucianism, Buddhist and Taoist teaching, and some Christian influence.

The indigenous folk tradition of Japan was later called Shinto. Shinto was a name produced in the 6th century CE from the Chinese shen, “divine being,” and tao, “way,” but in native Japanese it translates as kami no michi (sometimes kannagara no michi), “the way of the kami” or “the way that accords to the kami.” The kami are sacred powers present throughout the cosmos (sometimes simply the sacredness present in an object), worshiped especially in shrines or jinja. In a famous definition, Motoori Noringa (1730 – 1801, who worked to revive Shinto) wrote: “I do not yet understand the meaning of the word kami. In its most general sense, it refers to all divine beings on earth or in heaven that appear in the classic texts. More specifically, the kami are the spirits abiding in, and worshiped at, shrines. In principle, humans, birds, animals, trees, plants, mountains, oceans, can all be kami. In ancient usage, anything that was out of the ordinary, or that was awe-inspiring, excellent, or impressive was called kami…Evil and mysterious things, if they are extraordinary, are called kami.” There are innumerable kami, in Japanese yaoyorozu no kami, vast myriads of kami, divided into those that are heavenly and those that are earthly. The most important are the creators Izanami and Izanagi, and the sun kami, Amaterasu. The kami are vital in mediating musubi, the creative potency in the universe. To deal with the kami, religious specialists called shamans and diviners play a part, ad correct ritual is more important than “correct” doctrine. In early religion each clan or uji had its guardian kami or ujigami. When the emperor’s clan became dominant, a sacred national “clan” was formed with the emperor as the divine head.

“Motoori Norinaga self portrait” by Motoori Norinaga – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –